Tuesday, December 11, 2012

direct message 005: fatale

by Alec Berry and Chad Nevett

Week 2. The final week?

( we totally missed the deadline )

Alec Berry: We’ve made it clear in the past that we’re fans of this creative team, and I’m happy to say that Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips aren’t OK with growing comfortable. Fatale is quite ambitious. Ambitious for its interest in melding genres, but more so for its approach to assembling the story and the range of its fictional landscape. Plus, according to Brubaker, this project just keeps growing and growing, pushing from 12 issues to 15 and now to whenever he feels it’s done.

There’s no doubt Fatale does tread some familiar ground, but the series doesn’t feel like an exercise in recycling. Instead, Fatale pushes the interests of the creators and expands the territory those interests can walk upon. The whole thing’s about a femme fatale, but so far we’ve seen that one thing interact with horror, Lovecraft, 70s Hollywood and a time hopping narrative (with surely more to come). Plus, Brubaker and Phillips have shed light on the fatale’s POV which opens up a whole other angle in terms of a noir staple.

Most importantly, it’s all a juggling act on their part. They have to keep all of these objects in the air and synchronize them for our reading pleasure, and so far, though with a few slight slips, they’ve done a pretty nice job of making all of this work. At moments, it may seem fair to ask, “what is going on?”, but with each subsequent issue I’ve found my questions answered, and at this point there’s a confidence in this series. Brubaker and Phillips want to build Fatale this way, and the reading experience is a much more involving one for it.

For some reason, I expect you’re about to disagree with me, so I’ll hand it off to you, Chad.

Chad Nevett: Did I talk about Fatale with you and Joey? I honestly can’t remember, because I wound up talking to Tim and Joey the following night after some online RPGing fell through and I might have talked about it with them.

I like Fatale. I think. I’m at the point where I’m putting aside issues to read in larger chunks, because I find myself drifting when I drop in for single issues. Part of the problem, I think, is the ambition of the series and the unfamiliar ground for this team. Not as much Phillips as Brubaker. Phillips has drawn stuff like this going back to Hellblazer, but Brubaker still seems like he’s trying to find a way to pull it all together. The noir stuff works, just not when it’s run aside the rest. There’s such a large mythology looming in the background that he doesn’t want to simply throw in our faces that he’s forced to tease it out and... it’s not entirely successful. It feels half-formed at times, walking that line between the familiar and unfamiliar in a fashion where you can see the line and where he’s comfortable as a writer. It almost makes me wonder if he would have been better served just diving straight into horror and leaving noir behind, because the comparison isn’t always flattering; he would always face the comparison, but to have it in the same comic?

I don’t know why entirely, but every time I read about Brubaker expanding the book, it seems wrong to me. I know that paid off in Captain America, especially when Steve Rogers died. However, one of Brubaker’s biggest strengths has always been structure and being able to tell a story well within the structure he’s set out. Criminal stories were very specific in their size and that was a tremendous asset and appeal of the book. He could make stories sing and hit the right beats at the right time when he had the structure nailed down. So far, Fatale has meandered a bit more and hasn’t landed as strongly at the end of issues always. There hasn’t been the same “I need to read the next issue!” hook when I finish an issue.

It’s interesting that, instead of making this a book where he and Phillips would revisit the world and characters in separate minis, it’s just being expanded into a default ongoing series with no end in sight. Like the mash-up of noir and genre, that’s a little unfamiliar territory for the two given their collaborative history, and that’s both exciting and not. I genuinely love seeing people push themselves and try new things. The downside is that the work isn’t always as good. The next series where they try this will go better, no doubt. But, Fatale? Victim of experimentation, perhaps? (Too early to tell, obviously.)

AB: When you mention Brubaker walking the line between noir and horror, leaving you a little uncertain, well, that’s the point. I’ll agree with you in that Brubaker hasn’t necessarily picked an area of interest, but in terms of that being detrimental, I just don’t see it. The horror comes across sharper because of Brubaker walking that line. You’re left to believe this is just another Brubaker/Phillips collaboration, but at certain moments something horrific happens and you question what this series is. They ground so much of this story into a setting you may find predictable or familiar, yet when a monster shows up or a sacrifice occurs it only feels more eerie because it’s surrounded by so much of what’s familiar. They create a sense of invasion with that approach, suggesting these supernatural elements are alive and at any moment could fuck with what appears to be a recognizable existence - which is Lovecraft-y.

Plus, and I’m pretty sure Brubaker has mentioned this somewhere in the backmatter of this series, noir and horror just seem to mesh. Josephine is the one character who embodies elements of both subjects, and her dilemma shows what can be horrific about the noir style. She’s a femme fatale, and as we’ve seen she lives a life in which she’s afraid to act because of how her actions tend to affect others. With this, Brubaker and Phillips have also built in a sense of sexual repression/motivation - which tends to be a big theme in horror films and noir. Fatale hosts a lot of sex scenes, and that’s not a coincidence - that’s the common ground Brubaker and Phillips are working from, attaching horror and noir.

But there are other ways in which Fatale has shown noir to be horrific or horror to be sort of like noir. The cynicism of noir isn’t exactly hopeful. The subplot of the corrupt cops in the first arc shows us that. The melodrama and spectacle of horror sort of fits the dramatic tone of noir. Look at any big reveal moment in which a supernatural element is shown in this series and compare it to moments when the reveal is a drawn gun or human-versus-human conflict. They all have that same sense of shock value.

You’re right that this crew usually works within a set structure, but as we’ve discussed with Sleeper, it isn’t unknown for them to wander a bit. Will there be mistakes? I’m sure, but I’m OK with it because I tend to enjoy works with flaws as long as the overall project pushes. We both agree that Fatale pushes, and on my end I feel it’s been very interesting. Especially in terms of the character development. Because of the space, Brubaker and Phillips have given us some time to spend with Josephine and just sort of watch her, and it never feels to grow old. She’s a character who’s cursed with immortality, so it’s important to feel some of that time she’s forced to exist within. In the second arc, the scenes of her in her big, lonesome house just supply a sense of dread and imprisonment. Phillips draws her always near or in a window, framing her twice through both the panel and the window. He’s trapping her, and that’s a great, visually traditional way to speak of her situation.

the line went silent for a few days …

CN: Well, I just finished reading the second arc, which just finished up this week. There’s something off with this comic. Off as in... I don’t particularly like it. I love Phillips’s art, of course. I love the way he draws Jo; it’s somehow more expressive and deeper and softer than women he’s drawn before, which lends to the idea of her as this irresistible femme fatale that fucks up men forever. The writing, though, just leaves me so cold. The horror isn’t horrific, the noir is barely there... It seems more like bad melodrama much of the time. There are moments that work, mostly the stuff in the ‘present,’ but so much of it feels like it’s reaching for something that it can’t quite grasp.

Let’s see if I can write an explanation that I don’t know yet...

Tucker Stone partly hit the nail on the head recently when discussing the finale of the second arc. He said, basically, that, up until that point, Jo’s agony over her situation was boring. We saw a man influenced/trapped by her and not liking it, while we saw her not liking it either. Worse, the situation is one that isn’t inherently interesting. A woman who gets men to fall for her and do dumb things turned up to superhuman levels? That actually takes the edge off in a way. It’s less compelling when there’s something supernatural at play. She’s not complicit (except when she is) and that lack of intent much of the time creates a very passive story.

The horror/supernatural stuff feels like a crutch here that allows things to happen because they happen. There isn’t much bite, or even actual exploration into the cult in the second arc. There’s almost a “You know what this is...” assumption made. And we do. So, why should we care if nothing is really being said?

That sums it up for me: aside from the ‘present’ sequences, nothing is being said. At least nothing that I haven’t seen Brubaker say before -- and better.

AB: Jo doesn’t have to be complicit for it to be interesting. Actually, it's more interesting that she’s not and that the supernatural element of the story forces her hand and seems to be out of her or anyone’s control. That’s horrific - the fact that she feels bad, yet she must continue to do what she does because of a primal need/cosmic force. If she just agreed with it and fed into it, she’d just be any other villain or femme fatale.

You may be right in Brubaker using supernatural excuses as a crutch to move the plot and establish its conflicts, but at the same time isn’t that the same of any genre? And even here, the characters, or at least the villains of the story, seem to be in possession of those supernatural powers, sourcing their own motivations to insight the action/conflict. The cult has a motivation. They want Jo. Why? We’re not sure, but we’re not supposed to be sure because this thing’s a mystery too, and that provides some of the suspense. Why are they after her? Keep reading.

As for saying something new, I’ll give you that. Sleeper said all of this better, but at the same time the message or grand thought doesn’t seem to be the reason for this series. Above, I made the case for Fatale being an exercise for Brubaker and Phillips to further indulge their interests and entertain those interests in different ways. Through execution, that is so. We’re seeing this team sew this plot together in an ambitious fashion along with entertaining numerous characters and powerful forces that still remain in the dark. Yes, at the end of the day, the grand message isn’t exactly brand new, but we’re still seeing these creators construct a story a little differently, and I find it worthy of reading.  

As for your complaint of the horror not hitting, I really don’t know what to say except that it does for me. Difference in what we find horrific, I guess.  

I’m glad you brought up Phillips, though. We needed to cover him. This is arguably some of his stronger work, and I find that his usual use of the grid and smaller panels has really taken on some new life here. There’s something about that tightness to his layouts and page design that works toward the claustrophobia the Josephine character experiences. You’re spot on about how Phillips portrays Jo as visually soft and delicate, but outside of his line the pages sort of work to choke and suppress her. Visually, you get a sense of her almost fighting against the page as she tries to break free of the circumstance.

Dave Stewart’s also grown on me. I still miss Val Staples as a piece of this team, but Stewart is slowly becoming the look. Although, it does feel a tad less special. Stewart colors so many books, and it’s certainly possible to take it all for granted.

So Fatale clearly isn’t  a favorite of yours. Is this the worst Brubaker/Phillips project? What could have made Fatale better for you, to put it neatly?

CN: I’m with you on Val Staples. Something clicked there with Sean Phillips -- like Bryan Hitch/Paul Neary/Laura DePuy on The Authority. I really liked the colouring (and inking) on Hitch’s other work, but it was missing some intangible -- perhaps simply the one in my head. Same thing here. But, that’s me...

Fatale is not necessarily the worst Brubaker/Phillips project, but it’s definitely the one where I find myself pulled in two directions the most. As you point out, Phillips is continuing to grow and improve as an artist, doing some of his best work here. While Brubaker is leaving me cold on almost every level. That gap between writing and art has never been so wide and that’s disappointing. I think, on the whole, Incognito underwhelmed me more. I guess my problem is taking noir tropes and splicing them with other genres. They already do straight-up noir crime comics so well that it feels like watering those stories down with genre conveniences. Or cutting the comics with something bad.

There’s also the limitation of how much you’re willing to let any artist re-explore the same ideas again and again. I have it seems almost infinite patience for Warren Ellis exploring similar ideas in new ways, but not Ed Brubaker? That’s certainly a possibility. Not really fair, though...

AB: Yeah, I’m perfectly fine with watching this team as well as Brubaker himself re-explore a certain number of thoughts. To me, it’s no different than what plenty of other writers do. Brubaker has his interests, and he expands on them through familiar stories. It’s what writers do. Some just work better than others.

If I were to provide a ranking, I’d put Fatale somewhere in the middle of the list, maybe near a spot in the upper half. It’s not the all-out strongest in terms of impact, but its playfulness and sense of chance make it fun to read and watch develop. It’s definitely better than Incognito, but it doesn’t really challenge the likes of Sleeper or Criminal: Lawless either. More like a Criminal: Bad Night, than anything. Though, all subject to change if coming issues really pull this thing over the top.

We’ve claimed Fatale as being some of Sean Phillips’ stronger work, but why? For me, I see his sensibilities and style of storytelling very effective with this type of tale. We’ve both discussed his attention to the main character, but the time-hopping also allows Phillips to draw, at least so far, two eras he excels at: the 1940s/classic film noir era and 70s Hollywood, a time period that goes along well with Phillips’ work drawing Criterion covers. The settings are to his advantage, but we’re also getting his take on horror and more specifically the supernatural. I’m sure those areas were covered in his Hellblazer issues, but here it’s at work again, and it’s unsettling how similar it is to his take on crime comics. It seems unintentional and more a case of an overpowering visual style, but no matter the case Phillips’ style forces him to blend the noir and horror further. His pacing is no different here, and he approaches horror reveals very much like he approaches moments of reveal in a crime story. In fact, Fatale may just show us how horrific Phillips has been drawing crime all along, showing us a true terror we can actually experience.

All and all, this book just involves all of the right elements for Phillips. He’s drawing plenty of interesting stuff - from setting to objects to characters - along with constructing everything effectively. And that line and those inks are just at work. Very rich and at times round.  

CN: I see two potential reasons for why I think this is Phillips’s best work (well, there’s a third, too): it’s his most recent work and I’m of the mind that he keeps getting better. Or, there’s the lack of connection with the writing, making the art seems better because it needs to compensate more than usual. The third reason could be that it is better for many of the reasons you gave. I don’t believe Phillips has ever done a character as well as Jo. She is singular within this world visually and that impresses me quite a bit. She’s different from the others, but not so different that it looks like a completely radical style that clashes. I rather like that.

and with that, old man Nevett exhaled, and the room went quiet …

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